WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW HURTS
The Nation recently reported that in the last couple of years at least 75 registered lobbyists regularly have been used by CNBC, CNN, Fox Business Network, Fox News and MSNBC as news commentators without being identified by their affiliation.
Talking heads who once held or still hold political party positions, former military officials who now work for corporations working for the Pentagon and public relations specialists who represent companies or industries in the news, have been unabashedly utilized by these media without any reference to the potential conflicts of interest. In fact, MSNBC once featured a former Abramoff-linked lobbyist without mentioning he was under investigation for corruption (he later pleaded guilty).
It's enough the unsuspecting audience has to deal with the normal barrage of official government and industry sources to help shape the daily news agenda, but relying on these hacks the rest of time-without knowing who pays them-is unconscionable.
Newton Minow, half a century later your words still ring true-it's a vast wasteland out there.
WHEN ADVERTISERS HELP PLAN COVERAGE
The Detroit Free Press's masthead logo may say "On Guard for 178 Years," but questions have arisen recently concerning who is guarding whom. The Wall Street Journal revealed a few months ago that the Free Press was coordinating stories with advertisers. At the start of the school year, for example, the FP ran a series on schools in financial trouble over Target advertisements outlining the store's school-assistance programs. The FP says Target had nothing to do with the stories but Target did say it had asked the publisher about the paper's education coverage and its timing and decided to place the ads beside the education pieces.
In a related instance, the paper said it took an idea from health insurer Humana and developed a series on Medicare open enrollment. Humana bought advertisements next to the stories. The FP editor and publisher was quoted in the WSJ as saying that "Editorial content.does remain, with the newsroom," but "where we can find connections that make sense for marketing purposes, that's something we need to be open to."
On Guard for 178 Years? Detroit readers probably should keep their guard up.
HARD TIMES AT THE TIMES
It has been seven years since Jayson Blair, a The New York Times reporter, resigned in disgrace after it was revealed he had plagiarized. A similar incident in 2010 raises legitimate questions of editing supervision as well as hiring practices at the nation's top news medium. Zachery Kouwe, a TNYT business writer who used to work for the New York Post, had to resign after The Wall Street Journal editor turned over to The Times a list of almost verbatim overlaps between Kouwe's writings and stories in the WSJ.
The day before Kouwe's resignation The Times admitted its reporter appeared to "have improperly appropriated wording and passages published by other media organizations," but, according to the Associated Press, The Times' investigation did not turn up "any inaccuracies."
The day of the reporter's resignation, The Timessaid it had dealt with the matter and would not comment "on personnel issues."
Questions concerning the judgment of the Old Gray Lady also arose when one of its freelancers went on a junket and the paper initially dismissed the ethical issue by saying that the writer was a freelancer and "not on assignment for The Times," thus not in violation of the paper's ethical code, according to the Daily Finance. A few hours later, however, The Times did recognize that its standards did apply to freelancers "to the extent feasible" and "accepting free trips and other giveaways is at odds with these standards." The paper said the editors would be discussing the issue with the writer.
Wouldn't the existence of two sets of ethical standards invite one to wonder if there may be two levels of quality?
THINGS ARE TOUGH ALL OVER
You can tell journalism is undergoing fundamental changes when only a few eyebrows are raised because the deputy editor of the Los Angeles Daily News now also works for the Los Angeles Kings, a team he has covered since 2000.
In an agreement reached a few months ago, The New York Times reports, the reporter was given a "multiyear commitment and complete autonomy" to write for the team's Web site.
Rich Hammond, the reporter, said there is no use debating the ethics of his arrangement. He said fans understand the difference between public relations and journalism. He added, "I understand that people are going to have doubts.. The proof is going to be in the product."
OK, now Hammond is going to have access to inside information, but will he have to promise confidentiality to any of his new colleague sources?
ON SECOND THOUGHT, KILL THE STORY
The Dutch national news agency reported recently that the daily de Gelderlander decided against running an interview with a Moroccan woman after a relative of hers threatened the paper. The interview was about the woman's son, one of two men involved in a motorcycle accident that resulted in the death of a 50-year-old man.
Soon after the interview, a relative visited the paper's offices and demanded that the paper not publish the interview.
De Gelderlander editor explained his paper's decision this way: "We would obviously have preferred to publish..but we are morally obligated to the sister and the mother. Because of their decision to withdraw their cooperation, we cannot publish."
It used to be that attempts at media intimidation would be proof the journalists got it right and would guarantee publication.
This column is a regular feature in MEDIAETHICS. Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, c/o MEDIAETHICS.